Protecting Credibility

How do opinion leaders within business and policy protect their credibility and remain relevant in the age of “…anyone can be a subject matter expert” opinion leader evolution?

While originally worded differently, this was the question posed in earlier discussion within the emerging media and leadership course this week. The discussion centered around the exploitation of social media by those who aggressively seek followers while spreading misinformation or blatantly misrepresenting themselves, their company, or the products that they support or are attempting to sell.

In many ways protecting a leaders credibility is the same whether it is through the use of traditional media sources or social media. An effective leader doesn’t simply use his or her authority to accomplish a mission, an effective leader inspires his/her followers to believe in the end goal of the mission and the process that is used to accomplish the end goal. Moreover, the leader utilizes the assets (his/her followers) to maintain stability and to reinforce the leader’s authority on a certain subject matter.

An opinion leader may use traditional media, for example a news conference or press release, to make his or her company’s position known publicly or to reaffirm support for a policy initiative, providing background information to show support or facts to highlight the company’s progress of development within a specific product arena. An opinion leader’s statements are taken seriously and provide additional blocks of “support” to maintain their position as a respected member of the industry with which they work and to maintain relevancy as an opinion leader. Today, coupled with traditional media, social media tools are being used by leaders to quickly disseminate information throughout the global community through inter-connected social networks. These very same leaders are providing the same contextual information as they would through traditional media sources but with the added advantage of quick dissemination and frequent spread of information to new individuals thanks to their extensive list of “followers,” “friends,” or simply – customers or like-minded policy thinkers. Simply put, the spread of their information would not be possible without amassing some respectable amount of credibility from those who follow them.

How then, do these leaders protect that credibility?

If they take it seriously – which all leaders certainly must do – they must frequently evaluate the way their message is being formulated and make an honest assessment about the risks that could come from a poorly constructed message. Serious opinion leaders did not become successful by sensationlizing their statements or by merely going after the low-hanging fruit. They have successfully inspired others to follow what they believe, and more importantly – why they believe it. At the heart of every opinion leader’s public statement should be a reaffirmation for why the leader believes in a product, program, process, movement. The leader must also be cautious not to provide blatantly false information or misrepresent themselves. Further, do not stray too far from the core of your message. Traditional media, in certain environments, allows for in-depth coverage of a certain topic. Allowing a leader to provide background, core, and conclusion support for a movement. In the online and social media environment, the speed that information can be delivered and funneled throughout the community can occur very quickly and sticking to the core elements of the message in addition to the reaffirmation for why can help improve clarity and maintain the message in a simple to digest form. Leaders must also agree to abide by a clear code of standards or ethics for their messages. Do not misrepresent yourself or your company. Stay on topic. If you are using a third-party to develop your messages, be honest and tell your followers such. Engage your followers, challenge them when appropriate, and be receptive of the feedback you receive. Put simply – just be real. You can spot the fakes, the ones who are more focused on their image than actually providing some positive experience or interaction.

For many of us we find people and organizations that we trust and will rely on for information when we need it. Speaking personally, when I need information about the latest unrest in Syria I find myself over on CFR.org to read the latest analysis from policy-wonks who are well known for their accurate evaluation of mid-east politics, policy, and societal change. When I need information about the latest piece of technology, I find myself over at Gizmodo.com reading reviews or following a live-blog by one of their tested and experienced reporters. It is human nature for us to find tools that help us understand the world around us. Without really recognizing it we have given credibility to the sources we use regularly.

Think for a moment about why you continue to use a source. If you have time, share with me a favorite source and the type of information you receive from them. Is it an organization or an individual? How long have you used them and in what ways do they keep you coming back? Think about it from the angle of credibility and relevance and how, perhaps subconsciously, you have afforded them both of those rights as a follower.

Without the respect of the followers, a leader would be nothing, unless within the simple confines of a corporate organizational chart, and even then they are merely an authority figure lacking inspirational power. You cannot have respect if you lack credibility from your peers or supporters.

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